JOPLIN, Mo. —
He loves art for its interactivity. The way a work can be inspired by a symphony, for instance. Or how an opera can be based upon a piece of literature. How one artistic component can inform another, and another after that, until something wholly original springs from the imagination.
Jerry Caskey sees these lines. He follows them to see where they might lead. And once there, he attempts to capture this new thought, story or image on paper.
Visitors to the Upstairs Gallery at Spiva Center for the Arts will find the walls lined with works he has created. The pieces that make up "Jerry Caskey: Drawn to Collage" were hand delivered to the gallery over a 13-year period.
Make no mistake: Spiva isn't usually in the business of collecting artwork that people bring in off the street, says Sean Conroy, the gallery and gift shop coordinator at Spiva. But Caskey's drawings, collage work and stories stand out, he says.
"It has a very unique feel to it," Conroy says. "Some of it suggests a larger world that Jerry is creating. The way he's organized it are like worlds you might see in a science fiction movie. It has its own logic to it. It's curious work that makes you wonder what it's about. We were drawn to it and thought other people would be as well."
If Caskey looks familiar, it may be because he can be found most days at Joplin Public Library, where he spends his time reading, writing and creating new works of art.
Ask about his artistic philosophy, and he'll talk at length about Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso or the surrealist movement. He's read just every book on those topics and others available on the library shelves.
Ask him how what he learned from those book interacts with his own work, and it's a simple answer: "Everything has dimension. Everything has perspective."
And that includes Jerry Caskey.
"I'm originally from St. Louis, but I've lived here since I was 2 or 3. Basically, I'm a Joplinite," says Caskey, sitting this day at a table near the back of the library.
He's 53 years old, his straw-colored hair slightly askew on one side. His green T-shirt proudly proclaims "I love my bicycle," but he doesn't own a bike. In fact, he walks pretty much everywhere he goes, whether it's to the library, Northpark Mall or a bookstore.
Though out of work for several years, Caskey isn't without a place to live. He stays with friends who have a house in a neighborhood not far from the library. They have a garden, a pretty one that he'll often pass the time tending.
But the majority of his days are spent at work in the library.
"I don't want to be out on the street getting in trouble, or just loitering around and feel like I'm doing nothing," Caskey says. "I need to be doing something constructive and keeping myself busy."
He says his interest in art started when he was in grade school, with a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland, a publication edited by genre fan Forrest Ackerman, who is also credited with coining the term "sci-fi."
Caskey took those magazines and began basing his own artwork on stills from monster movies.
"They were real basic," he says of those early works.
Nevertheless, they allowed him to develop his self-taught skills. He developed an interest in abstract artists and surrealism. He took to drafting while in junior high, which then led to studying cubism.
"The line forms evolved out of my drafting," says Caskey. "I never could shade or sketch. There's a lot of geometry to my work, at least in the skeletal structure of it. I can build the abstract around it."
He produces an art box from under the table, a gray container sporting aged stickers that include Spider-Man and the sort given out when voting. Inside are markers, pencils, a plastic bag of clippings copied from magazines and drawings and collages that are currently in progress.
The latter he takes out and spreads on the table before him.
"My color scheme is a rebirth of the European surrealist style," Caskey says. "I use a lot of bright colors. I like the interblending of bright colors with pastel colors. It sets a certain mood."
The bag of black and white clippings come out next.
In his studies at the library, he looks for photographs that catch his eye, which he then copies, clips and layers to form unique visual landscapes.
"I have to have at least nine constructs for it to technically be a collage," he says. "Some of them have up to 60 or 70 pieces."
Caskey says his collages are inspired by the works of Max Ernst, a German artist who helped pioneer the surrealist movement. Ernst, he says, felt he was somewhat in competition with Salvador Dali in terms of creating photographic dreamscapes.
He enjoys the interaction between the old and the new. Many of his collage works are built upon architectural backgrounds, layered constructs that have a vintage feel, yet feature recognizable faces such as Bob Dylan and Bob Dylan interacting with their surroundings.
"I've used Geronimo with Middle Eastern architecture and it works out really well," says Caskey.
The collages have inspired short stories, many of them science fiction in nature. He likes to find books at the library that interest him, create summaries of the stories they tell, then look for ways to combine them into a completely new story. Those new stories, he says, can then inspire new works of art.
About 13 years ago, Caskey began taking some of his finished artwork to donate to Spiva.
"I donated before I moved to Kansas City for a little while, and went through a period where I was moving around a lot," he says. "I came back to Joplin and started donating my art to them, but I'd forgotten that I'd donated before. It was kind of a flash back for me."
He was approached recently by staff at the arts center about doing an exhibition of his work.
"They did really good preserving my artwork," he says. "I couldn't have asked for more from them. I was very appreciative of the thought."
Staff at Spiva say that Jerry wasn't hard to track down to ask about doing an exhibit, given that he can usually be found just down the street at the library.
"I do spend a lot of time here," Caskey says, looking around. "I've been unemployed for some time now because of a shoulder injury. I have to have something to keep me busy."
That injury, he says, is bad. He pulls his T-shirt down over his shoulder to reveal a gauze-packed wound that looks fresh, despite being several years old.
"It was the classic mistake that smokers can make," says Caskey. "You don't lay down on a couch and smoke a cigarette because you might fall asleep and set yourself on fire. That is actually true."
The burn has never healed properly, and goes through a cycle where it will start to get better but then the wound will flare up again.
"I've struggled with it," he says. "I'll go to the hospital and they treat it, but they're trying to understand my biochemistry. It's a biochemical problem that interacts with my employment."
Caskey says he feels fortunate that he's able to spend so much time at the library, because it allows him to interact with the books and other holdings that inspire the artwork that he says he'll continue to deliver to Spiva for safekeeping.
He pauses for a moment to note that a line can be drawn between Spiva, the library and the newspaper office. The library helped shape the artwork that led to a gallery exhibit that led to someone from the newspaper coming back to the library to sit down and ask questions about his work.
For those who make the trip to Spiva to view his artwork, Caskey hopes that they walk away with more of an appreciation for the power of imagination and diversity. Not just in his artwork, but art -- and life -- in general.
"The imagination is unlimited," says Caskey. "Art is not confined to a boundary. Everything is interactive."
Want to see?
"Jerry Caskey, Drawn to Collage" is on display in the Upstairs Gallery at Spiva Center for the Arts, 222 W. Third St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.